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Nanotech Expert: Without More EHS Research, 'We're Working in the Dark'

With more than 300 allegedly nanotechnology-based consumer products already on the market, nanotechnology in the workplace presents an "immediate challenge" to occupational safety and health, according to one of the leading experts on the subject.

Andrew Maynard, Ph.D., chief science advisor for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, is urging the U.S. government to invest at least $100 million over the next 2 years in "targeted risk research in order to begin to fill in our occupational safety knowledge gaps and to lay a strong, science-based foundation for safe nanotechnology workplaces."

Currently, just $11 million of the U.S. government's $1 billion in annual nanotechnology research spending goes toward EHS research, according to Maynard.

In his article "Nanotechnology: The Next Big Thing, or Much Ado About Nothing?" - which will appear in the January 2007 edition of the Annals of Occupational Hygiene - Maynard notes that nanotechnology is being heralded as "the next industrial revolution." But along with its promises of breakthroughs ranging from improved cancer treatments to longer-lasting batteries, nanotechnology also brings "increasing concerns" that it will present "new risks to human health and the environment, which we are not well-equipped to deal with," Maynard says.

"We have a long history of somebody coming up with a bright idea and implementing it and only realizing after the fact that there's a downside to it," Maynard told

That's why Maynard, in his article, asserts that failing to conduct enough nanotechnology EHS research "will ultimately lead to people's health being endangered and emerging nanotechnologies floundering."

The good news, Maynard told, is that the existing knowledge base in occupational hygiene provides "a lot of information on how to work pragmatically with these kinds of materials." However, "very few people have taken that vast resource of information and applied it to nanomaterials."

"So I think there are ways of using existing [occupational hygiene] information that will get us 60 or 70 percent of the way" toward working safely with nanomaterials, Maynard said. "That then leaves a gap that has to be filled with this strategic, targeted research. Without the research, we won't have a good, scientific basis to truly ensure safe working places."

"Overwhelming Uncertainty"

Maynard, in his article, asserts that "there is an overwhelming level of uncertainty over what materials and technologies present a potential risk, why they do and how risk might be assessed and managed effectively."

He does, however, note that there a number of "red flags" indicating that some engineered nanomaterials "present a new or unusual health hazard." Maynard points to recent research conducted with rodents indicating that inhaled nano-size particles are capable of rapidly moving from the nasal cavity to the brain, "circumventing the blood-brain barrier." (For more, read "Inhaled Nano-Size Particles Move Quickly to the Brain, Study Finds.")

When Maynard testified at a Sept. 21 hearing on nanotechnology held by the House Committee on Science, he noted that the ultimate goal must be to reduce all of this uncertainty regarding the potential hazards of nanotechnology "through systematic scientific research."

A report released earlier this year by the Project on Emerging Technologies contends that the immediate priorities for nanotechnology EHS research include methods for assessing the potential toxicity of nanomaterials; methods for measuring exposure to nanomaterials; methods for controlling exposure to and release of nanomaterials; best practices; and research methods.

The report, which is referenced in Maynard's article, also calls for "investment in longer-term priorities" - including "establishing associations between nanomaterials exposure and disease" - "to build sufficient knowledge and capacity to address future challenges."

Maynard explained to that what's needed right now is "basic research," which he acknowledged is "cause for concern."

"One of my biggest concerns is that because nanomaterials are incredibly diverse, there are going to be many things out there that aren't harmful, and there are going to be some things that are harmful if they're used in the wrong way, and we need very clear rules on how to use things safely and what might happen if we don't use them safely," Maynard told "My concern is that we don't have enough research and information at the moment to determine what those rules are. So it means we're working in the dark."

Control Banding Could Be a "Stop-Gap Solution"

Until more "nano-specific" EHS information is available, Maynard suggests stakeholders develop a control banding approach to manage nanotechnology risk in the workplace.

While Maynard cautions that this "is still very much in the conceptual stage," he says the concept of control banding applied to nanotechnology could involve selecting appropriate control approaches based on a nanomaterial "impact index" that would take into account a nanomaterial's chemistry (its composition-based hazard) and its nanostructure (for example, its particle size, shape, surface area and activity and bulk-size hazard). A corresponding "exposure index" could, in turn, represent the amount of material used and its propensity to become airborne (its "dustiness").

"As with conventional control banding, the combination of the two indices could then be conceivably linked to specific control bands," Maynard explains in "Nanotechnology: The Next Big Thing, or Much Ado About Nothing?".

"[Control banding] is a way of making very pragmatic decisions on how you control exposure where you don't have all the information you'd ideally like to have at hand," Maynard told "With conventional control banding it would be because you can't afford to carry out all the complex monitoring you would usually do. But in that that respect, it's always seen as a stop-gap solution."

Maynard's article, "Nanotechnology: The Next Big Thing, or Much Ado About Nothing," is available free of charge at

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